Years ago, I interviewed a woman who had donated eggs to her sister. I have worried about her ever since. Recently, I reconnected to find out how things turned out.
In 2010, as part of a journalism project funded through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, I had the opportunity to interview Canadian women about their experiences with egg donation. One was a Toronto woman who had donated eggs to her sister.
There were many things about her case that troubled me. One was the way she had felt pressured to help. She and her sister had had a serious falling out. “They had tried other options to have a baby. None of them worked, and they sort of came crawling back to me to help,” she told me at the time. “It was their only option.” After initially saying no, she changed her mind and agreed to do it. “I said yes because she’s my sister, she really wanted this, and physically I was able to help her with this.”
Her feelings were complicated. “I was angry that they had asked me,” she told me. “I was scared that this wouldn’t work, and I'd gone through all this, and I’d feel really guilty that I’d done something to make it not work.” She wished she’d had more guidance on how to deal with her feelings of guilt and anger, because she didn't feel up to sorting things out on her own.
Another of her concerns was that she did not get along well with her sister’s partner. They were supposed to have joint counselling, to work through their issues, but in the end, someone decided that wasn't necessary, and she was seen by the counsellor on her own. She was honest during the session: “I told them about the fights we had, the way he treated my sister, the screaming matches I’d had with him, and how I really disliked him,” she said. “I kind of felt that nothing was resolved with my bad relationship with her fiancé.”
My interview with her took place when her niece, the child born from her donation, was a toddler. The two were close, but she worried that the relationship with her sister’s partner would deteriorate to the point that he’d restrict access to the little girl.
She had a difficult donation, physically, and took a long time to recover. She had to take a lot of time off work, and estimated that, even though her sister covered all the costs of drugs and travel and accommodation, she lost about $9000. She worried too that she might never be able to have children of her own.
Her story was a reminder to me that sister-to-sister donation is not as straightforward as some people like to believe. Although many of the creators of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act seemed to believe interfamily donation was the ideal, and that stranger donation was to be avoided, stories like this made me question that. I came to wonder whether the opposite might in fact be true.
Recently I contacted this woman by email and told her I wanted to interview her again, to find out how things turned out. We sat down together in late June.
7 minute read
Give me a snapshot of where things stand…
My sister, brother-in-law and niece live five minutes away from me. I am married and have a daughter, who is four. She goes to preschool in the mornings three days a week and my sister and my brother-in-law pick her up, and then they all go and have lunch with my niece. So my daughter spends a lot of time with my niece.
It's really worked out that the preschool was around the corner from them. They are kind of like our caregivers. It helps them out financially that they take care of her a couple of days a week, and we needed help. It takes a village.
What is the relationship like between the girls?
My niece has become very close to my daughter. My niece is eleven and my daughter is just four. My sister and I were seven years apart, and so are they.
It’s like they have a sister, but they don’t. They fight like sisters, but they play like sisters too.
Last month, I took my niece, my daughter and my sister to Disney, to Orlando. I rented an AirBnB, with a private pool. The girls picked their bedroom. They wanted to stay in the same room, in these single beds. It was very cute. They were pretty excited to kind of pretend they were sisters.
I rented a car, so we went all over. They loved it. It was just the four of us. It was pretty emotional. My niece sent a card home with my daughter saying, ‘I love you, my half-sister.’
What is your relationship like with your niece?
When she was about two, everything just kind of fell into place. She’s my niece, but she's a special niece. I try to set aside some time without my daughter, just with my niece, to do our special thing. We do a big theatre show. She’s very into music and choir and drama and stuff now, and I have a theatre background.
How did your niece feel when your daughter was born?
There was a little bit of jealousy, I think. My niece withdrew quite a bit, she was a little bit misbehavey, a little sulky.
Now she really shows her off at school and drags her around by the hand. She likes to call her her half-sister.
How does your daughter feel about your niece?
I don’t know how fully she gets it. She is just so enamoured with my niece. She really looks up to her a lot.
How old was your niece when she found out you were the egg donor?
My niece was about eight. My sister and her were on the streetcar and there was a very pregnant woman. And they started talking and my sister just kind of went into it.
They had said to us you just treat it like adoption, that once they start asking questions you should be completely honest.
So my sister starts telling the whole story and my niece didn’t really say much. At the end, she said, ‘So that’s why I look so much like my aunt!’ And that was it.
She does look a lot like me. They see baby pictures of me or her and people aren't too sure which is which. She says, ‘That’s me!’ and we say, ‘Actually, that’s your aunt.’
When I would go to school to pick her up, people would say, ‘Your aunt looks identical!’ At first I was always like, ‘Oh God!’ It’s awkward. But now my sister’s pretty open. Now we’ve started to be honest and just tell people. ‘Actually, she was the egg donor.’
If it’s a man, they gloss over. A lot of women are usually, ‘Oh wow, that's exciting!’ You usually get a lot of questions. I’ve had women cry.
How is your relationship with your sister?
We’re super close. We talk every day. She takes care of my daughter.
She was upset that she couldn’t have her own, but I think for her this was probably the next best thing. My sister needed to feel it was a part of her.
I do remember one Christmas — my niece was maybe a year old, a baby-baby — we were opening presents and she kept reaching and lunging for me. I remember my sister going upstairs and bawling her eyes out. I think that was something always at the back of my sister’s mind. Is she going to be more attracted to me? But that seems to be the only time where she was really quite emotional about it.
What about you and your brother-in-law?
I don’t see him much. He’s not my favourite, but we’re amicable. And he’s great with the kids.
I just don’t really have a lot of contact with him. My sister and I are the main caregivers of the girls and the girls are so close. It’s usually the four of us. The girls rule the roost. It’s a weird extended family.
And did you have any trouble getting pregnant?
I did have questions as to whether I could have children after all that stuff that went on, but we got pregnant right away. As soon as we tried, I was pregnant a month later. I had her when I was 40.
I met my husband just when I was donating, and we dated a little bit after. I think we married when I was 35. I would have liked to have had kids earlier and to have had more but it wasn’t the case. In my head, I thought I’d have more than one. I know we’re kind of older. I know I have my niece too. But I think of adoption sometimes.
My niece is a thriving 11-year-old. In a few years, she’ll be a teenager. I think my sister’s fear is that she’s going to want to come live with me. It will be interesting to see what happens.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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